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Exploring California's Coast
May, 2021 - Issue #199

There was a significant gap in my knowledge of California's coastline. I grew up in Southern California, lived on the Central Coast and spent time exploring the state's far northern coast, but the stretch between San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz remained unexplored for me.
After looking at maps, I was even more curious, considering its proximity to the densely populated Bay Area and the number of state beaches it boasts. Essentially, it's a pristine stretch of largely-wild California hiding in plain sight.
April and I spent a day exploring a section of it, driving north from Santa Cruz one morning to Half Moon Bay and then working our way south with a very loose itinerary.
Our exploration began at Pillar Point, better known as the iconic big-wave surf spot, Maverick's. It was a sunny day with a steady breeze; beautiful in its own right, but not serving up the monster waves that draw the world's best surfers. The tide was out, so we clambered over rocks and poked around the tide pools in search of sea life.
Our next stop was Gray Whale Cove State Beach. Hard up against the mountains, with a steep descent to a pocket beach, it reminds me of Big Sur. There were no whales to be seen, just nude sunbathers. Fortunately, they sequestered at the north end of the cove while shore fisherpeople claimed the south end.
It was a quick visit, but worth it to ride the rope swing dangling from a cypress limb high above the beach. Someone fashioned it from climbing rope and a driftwood log, creating a perch that makes long lazy swings with expansive views.
Lunch found us at San Gregorio State Beach. We carried our chairs and cooler down to the sandy beach for a picnic and found shelter from the wind against the bluff.
The onshore breeze blew the surf into frothy breakers that churned steadily ashore. After lunch, we rounded the bluff and wandered further down the beach in search of pictures. We didn't get far. The rising tide cut off our path and guaranteed wet shoes if we continued.
We had one more stop in mind, so we drove south. Pigeon Point Lighthouse stands as one of the few remaining - and accessible - lighthouses along California's coast. It entered service in 1872 with a 16-foot-tall, 2,000-pound glass lens. The station still guides mariners today, with LED replacing lard oil for illumination.
While the interior is off-limits until needed repairs are made, visitors can explore the grounds, read about the light house's history and examine a chunk of shipwreck displayed nearby.
Surveying the rocky shoreline from the cliffs, it's easy to see Pigeon Point's importance to sailors and to imagine the isolation of the lighthouse keepers tasked with keeping it running. We made our way down to the deserted beach, enjoying the solitude, watching the waves battle the rocks and studying a heron standing sentinel among the tidepools.
With the sun nearing the horizon, we detoured back north along the shoreline road for a better vantage of the impending sunset. The fading daylight and blustery wind demanded jackets, beanies and constant movement to stay warm.
We paused long enough to watch for the green flash as the last fingernail of the sun slipped from view. There was no flash, but the day's parting gift was a backdrop of hazy color with the lighthouse in the foreground that April captured on film.
We covered a lot of ground in one day, so my curiosity was partially satisfied. But we also realized how much more there is to see and explore.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic when he's not wandering the coast.

Explore!
Pillar Point insidescv.com/pillarpoint
Gray Whale Cove State Beach parks.ca.gov/?page_id=528
San Gregorio State Beach
parks.ca.gov/?page_id=529
Pigeon Point Lighthouse parks.ca.gov/?page_id=533
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